Now they must prove that there is more to their cause than blind fury
ONLY four years after the voters sent them packing, handing both chambers of Congress to the Democrats at the 2006 mid-terms, the Republicans are back. Voters then (and again in 2008) decided that Republican policies had blown up the deficit with unaffordable tax cuts, let the banks run wild, dragged America into two costly wars and produced a wretched harvest of stagnant wages, rising job insecurity and soaring health-care costs. Now they seem to have decided that they like Barack Obama and the Democrats even less.
The mid-term elections on November 2nd saw the biggest swing to the Republicans for 72 years (see article). With a few results still to come, they have picked up over 60 seats in the House of Representatives, for a solid majority of at least 50. In the Senate they gained at least six seats, though they will fall short of control there.
From Barack to Boehner
For Mr Obama, the lesson is simple enough: sharpen up, and prepare for a tough two years. Yes, this was hardly an enthusiastic vote for his opponents, more a howl of rage against incumbents from citizens struggling after the worst slowdown since the 1930s. And he has a string of legislative achievements to his name. But plenty of centrists plainly fear that he has drifted too far to the left, that he dislikes business and that he does not understand middle America. He looks a far less competent figure than he did two years ago. With a hostile House and a gridlocked Senate, the chances of passing any big new laws are remote; and Republican victories in crucial swing states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania will make the president’s re-election battle in 2012 a lot harder. If Mr Obama is to win again, he needs to move back to the pragmatic centre of what is still a pretty conservative country.
But so do the Republicans. If the road ahead for Mr Obama is filled with pot-holes, that in front of John Boehner, the next speaker of the House, is strewn with elephant traps. He has just inherited, along with Nancy Pelosi’s gavel, a trillion-dollar fiscal deficit coupled with a weak recovery that is generating hardly any new jobs. It is a Republican House that must now pass America’s budgets, decide whether to stimulate the stricken economy or tighten the purse strings, and figure out what to do about the government’s debt, which will soon bump up against the $14.3 trillion limit currently set for it by law. Whether Mr Boehner decides to work with Mr Obama or against him, voters will accord him a share of the blame if things continue to be miserable.
And what exactly does Mr Boehner head? It never pays to underestimate the American right. In the past two years of opposition, it has rediscovered one great strength, a belief in small government that George Bush foolishly shed. But this is clouded by three other things: fury, an absence of ideas and more than a little craziness. Much though the leaders of the tea-party movement claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they lack both the Gipper’s sunny optimism and his pragmatism.
Take for instance the thing the right affects to care about most: the deficit. To reduce America’s debt involves cutting spending, increasing taxes, or a combination of both. Tax rises are anathema. But Republicans are strangely silent about what spending they would like to cut, apart from those inadequate old standbys, earmarks and government waste. No red-blooded conservative will touch defence expenditure at a time when America’s troops are in combat and the country faces toner-wielding terrorists and a rising China. Reforming entitlements, which mostly means chopping away at Medicare, the health scheme for the elderly, is the obvious place to start. But tea-partiers, who tend to be elderly themselves, are rather keen on that bit of big government. (Of course, Mr Obama has no credible plan to deal with the deficit either. But at least by backing a stimulus now he has a cogent answer to the immediate problem of the stuttering recovery.)
Mr Boehner is from the more sensible end of his party. He is surely aware that American elections are won in the centre. The tea-partiers, for all their energy, threw away at least two Senate seats, in effect, by imposing unelectable oddballs (including a self-confessed ex-witch) in states where Republican victory had been assured. But he will be under pressure to keep his base happy. And there will be the additional distraction of various Republicans, including perhaps Sarah Palin, jockeying for their party’s presidential nomination.
Who wants to live in a town called Nope?
It is easy to tell Speaker Boehner what not to do. Impeaching Mr Obama, for instance, as some of his newer recruits are keen to do, would be a huge mistake: a pointless distraction from far more serious issues. Blocking everything in sight in the hope of denying Mr Obama re-election may work against the Republicans, just as shutting down the government hurt them in 1995 after their last congressional takeover, and helped Bill Clinton to re-election the next year. Sabotaging Mr Obama’s health-care plans, as Republican leaders say they plan to do, is risky as well: the reforms are unpopular, but creating chaos, which is all the Republicans will be able to manage thanks to Mr Obama’s veto pen, could prove even more so.
In theory, there could be room for some form of useful grand bargain on the economy. Mr Obama could extend more help to small businesses, offer tax reforms that would make commerce simpler and generally do more to show that he understands how wealth is created. The Bush tax cuts, due to expire at the end of this year, could be extended and a short-term stimulus agreed upon. Mr Boehner and Mr Obama could work together on a convincing medium-term plan for bringing down the deficit, one which included entitlement reform.
The danger is that the opposite may happen. A deficit deal will prove impossible. Deadlock over the Bush tax cuts will see them expire, letting taxes rise sharply by default. Without further help from the federal government, cash-strapped states will sack employees and cut benefits next year. It is in everybody’s interest that Sheriff Obama and the Republican posse work together. But a shoot-out seems more likely.
The Economist on line November 4th 2010